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Project Sows Seeds For University, Tribal Collaboration
July 24, 2019

The Ojibwe people tell of a prophecy that spurred their journey from the Atlantic coast of North America to the Great Lakes region more than 1,000 years ago – revelations that told them to travel west to a land where food grew on the water.

A manoomin bed on the Lac du Flambeau Reservation in northern Wisconsin. Photo courtesy Sarah Dance.

That food? Wild rice, or “manoomin” to the Native American nations that, like the Ojibwe, comprise the broader group of Anishinaabe tribes in the Upper Midwest and Canada.

But manoomin is much more than just a crop to these tribes and others. It represents their connection to nature and holds profound spiritual significance as a gift from their creator. The Menominee Tribe’s name literally translates to “wild rice people.”

“It permeates all aspects of their cultures,” says Sarah Dance, a graduate student in the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) College of Engineering who’s working on a project to build connections between the university and Native American tribes around wild rice protection and restoration efforts.

Dance, a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina and a doctoral student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, received a Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Grant to support her project, which will span three growing seasons.

According to information, a 2011 study by researchers at UW-Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies showed the number of watersheds with wild rice in Wisconsin and neighboring Minnesota had declined 32 percent since 1900. Southern Wisconsin, in particular, has become barren.

Research from the University of Minnesota has illustrated the harmful role of sulfide in the soil beneath wild rice waterways – a key consideration given the prospect of several potential mines in Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and state legislation in 2017 that eased Wisconsin’s sulfide mining restrictions.

By testing water quality, studying sediment and conducting bucket experiments that will simulate a range of environmental conditions, Dance hopes to develop site-specific recommendations in partnership with her collaborators from the Lac du Flambeau and Lac Courte Oreilles tribes.

“Native people already know the water quality issues in the area that are impacting manoomin survival and growth, and the university has this wealth of resources that can look at some of those conditions,” says Dance, who has worked on a wild rice outreach and education toolkit as part of a Wisconsin Sea Grant project. “We found that there are all of these really small efforts out there and they’re not well connected to one another. Our hope is that the research we’re doing can push the needle forward on creating some best practices and sharing those across all those different entities.”

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